Join Colleagues on Capitol Hill

BY KATIE STEWART

The AAUP’s Capitol Hill Day will be held June 15 as part of the Annual Conference . Here’s what members of the Rhode Island delegation had to say about it last year:

The Rhode Island AAUP group was made up of people from variety of backgrounds which generated well-rounded discussions with Representatives Cicilline, Langevin and Senators Reed and Whitehouse.

Among those represented in the group were parents who had put three children through college and took on Parent PLUS loans, graduate student employees, and tenured faculty members. Issues of discussion included student loans and interest rates, low pay for adjunct professors, administrative bloat, and budget cuts for humanities programs based on short-term analyses by administrations.

Student Loans and Debt

Danielle Dirocco, executive director of Graduate Assistants United, brought personal student loan statements to the conversations. Although she has remained consistent in paying her student debt back to the loan company, the debt has grown and it has become more and more difficult to see a way out. Speaking about the seemingly hopeless debt situation she said, “I have exactly no chance of getting ahead of the game here.” She went on to say, “This is not an uncommon experience, this is exactly what we see our faculty members going through, being burdened with a significant amount of debt. We are all working with students and we are selling them the opportunity to go to college. But this [debt] is what we are selling them. It shouldn’t be like that, we shouldn’t be selling a public good.”

But this [debt] is what we are selling them. It shouldn’t be like that, we shouldn’t be selling a public good.

Travis D. Williams, Department of English chair at the University of Rhode Island said, “The bigger problem is that this is a government subsidized way of creating a structured underclass who will never get out. It suppresses economic activity because you cannot buy a house, it’s hard to buy a car, it’s hard to put your own kids through college. It’s also a security issue. What we used to call the middle class is now economically insecure because of this crushing debt.”

Disinvestment in Higher Education, Instruction and Student Support

When discussing the national rise in tuition, the group expressed their concern on growing investments in things other than instruction and student support. University administrators across the country are awarded raises in salary while members of faculty are not shown their value in fair financial compensation. These are occurrences that many members of the URI AAUP have seen on their own campus throughout their careers. Elizabeth Cooper, URI AAUP president says that “the federal government should play a bigger role in the support of these public institutions because they are a source of good workers and smart thinkers. For every dollar invested in these students, we get six dollars back.”

Carolyn Betensky, associate professor and student advisor at University of Rhode Island, pressed on the issue of universities hiring adjuncts to teach for less than minimum wage. This hiring practice has a direct negative effect on students and their learning environments. Professors are often given much more than they can handle and are stressed about money, paying their debt back, and searching for other sources of income in order to make ends meet. There is a growing concern that low-paying adjunct professor positions make it possible to create higher-paying administration positions but is part of a troubling and unsustainable trend.

Another member compared adjunct professors’ financial and working conditions to sweatshops and said, “We are the laborers of the universities.”

This year, the founder of Trump University took the White House and privatizer Betsy DeVos assumed the role of Secretary of Education. In some ways, it is challenging to imagine problems of affordability and economic security for students and faculty turning around given the political environment. But initiatives in New York, California and nationally are making strides to make higher education more affordable and more equitable across the board.

Katie Stewart is a recent graduate of the University of Portland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Spanish. She participated in the AAUP Capitol Hill Day in 2016 with the University of Rhode Island AAUP chapter.

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